Did Prehistoric Horses Hibernate?

Better preservation of animal specimens, combined with advancing analytical technologies, has enabled some remarkable discoveries.  I recently blogged about how scientists used genetic research to study the decline of the woolly mammoth.  A separate research study has yielded an intriguing theory: ancient horses hibernated.

Hibernation is a state of prolonged inactivity practiced by some warm-blooded animals.  It is characterized by lowered metabolism, body temperature, breathing and heart rate.  Hibernation helps animals conserve energy when food becomes scarce, especially during cold winters.  Prior to the long sleep, an animal will consume large amounts of food and convert it into fat stores.

Researchers from Spain and Russia analyzed the fat of several prehistoric animals, including two horses from 4,600 and 4,400 years BP (before present).  Analysis instrumentation included an Agilent gas chromatograph.

Fatty acids and polyunsaturated fatty acids were found in values similar to those normally found in hibernating animals such as badgers, bears and beavers.  The implication is that woolly mammoths and prehistoric horses hibernated or semi-hibernated.  This would have helped the animals survive the long and dark winters in the Arctic zone of Siberia.

This theory is actually supported by a modern-day horse breed.  Today, the Yakutian horse in Siberia is known to enter a state of semi-hibernation during the winter and strong frosts.  It moves minimally, stays mainly in a sleeping position and requires minimal feeding.  The Yakutian horse also has an unusual thick layer of fat under the skin and in the abdominal cavity.

The researchers in this study also believe that by hunting and consuming mammoths and horses, early humans were able to obtain enough n-3 and n-6 fatty acids for their own heath.

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